FALFURRIAS, Texas — A Texas professor who specializes in helping identify the remains of immigrants found along the U.S.-Mexico border worries that a combination of summer heat and increased numbers of children making the trek will result in more deaths of migrant kids.
Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker has spent 11 years exhuming bodies at paupers' cemeteries, conducting DNA tests on the remains and helping more than 70 families learn the fates of their loved ones. One of the cemeteries where she and her student volunteers work is Sacred Heart Burial Park here.
"In Texas we don't have any landmarks," she said. "At best we have scrub oaks. One of the deputies that's a volunteer deputy in the county said he went out and was lost because he just had no landmark to go by. ...
"He realized he was walking in circles when he thought he was walking a straight line," Baker said. "That was just one day."
While the Border Patrol doesn't specifically list child deaths among its statistics, migrant deaths are increasing after a lull during the recession. Almost 450 bodies were found along the Southwest border with Mexico during the 2013 fiscal year, a number that had dropped to 365 during the same period in 2010.
The Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector, where the river is shallow and temperatures frequently top 90 degrees in the summer, had more than a third of those deaths — more than every other area combined except the Tucson sector, which had the most fatalities.
Wednesday's high here, about 80 miles north of the Mexican border at McAllen, Texas, was 90. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is calling unaccompanied children risking their lives to cross the border a "major catastrophe waiting to happen" because of summertime heat.
"We've had children dying here in the desert," Isabel Garcia, an immigrant rights activist with the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Coalition for Human Rights), in South Tucson, Ariz., told CNN earlier this month. There, the high topped 100 degrees Wednesday.
Almost 50,000 unaccompanied minors — primarily from from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year and been caught since Oct. 1, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last week.
Baker, whose ID program is paid for by public Texas State University, Methodist-affiliated University of Indianapolis and Baptist-affiliated Baylor where the forensic analysis is done, is worried about the children who don't turn themselves in — the ones the Border Patrol doesn't find. Despite the risk of Texas' terrain, she said the parents of these children are forced to make heartbreaking choices.
"There's conflict in El Salvador. There's violence in Mexico. These have become refugees 'cause they know that their children will die if they stay where they are," she said. "They know they could die if they come over here. So, one's a sure thing and one has a bit of hope at the end."